It’s one of our best known festivals outside Colorado, attracting talent from coast to coast. It’s grown to include more than 100 performers over three days, with headliners on the Paramount Theatre stage for the second year in row. And it starts this Thursday.
At just four years old, High Plains Comedy Festival already seems like a Denver institution.
High Plains’ success can be chalked up to Denver’s consistently strong comedy scene, but it’s also a product of the success of its founder, Adam Cayton-Holland. Along with Colorado’s own Ben Roy and Andrew Orvedahl, he helped put Denver on the map with their old alt-comedy showcase, Grawlix, and now their new TV show, “Those Who Can’t.”
“I just think Denver has kind of hit its stride, comedically, that people really know that it’s a good comedy city, but also there are just a bunch of comics who have come through and have seen it firsthand,” Cayton-Holland said. “Everyone is just like, ‘Oh, the Denver comedy scene rules and Denver itself rules.’ I remember when I first started doing standup around town 12 years ago — I’m an old man now — when I started asking people to come out to Denver, they were like, ‘Why?’ And now it’s like, ‘Can I please come out to Denver?’”
Growing recognition and diversity
Janae Burris — who will be part of New Negroes and the Saturday Night Special showcase this week — has experienced the same buzz. She moved here from Los Angeles two years ago and has heard more and more good things about Denver in that time.
“I got super lucky,” she said. “The scene here is much better, for standup comics specifically.”
Burris sees Denver’s comedy scene as something like a farm system through which comedians know they can find work. It provides a much clearer path than in LA.
“I think the scene is thriving because the people who are part of it really care about it,” she said. “I hope that the people who find success keep reaching back to help new people and keep making room for everybody.”
That includes, especially, women and people of color. Burris has been encouraging other women to become a bigger part of it and also really wanted to see the New Negroes showcase happen at High Plains.
“They make a specific effort,” she said of High Plains’ diverse lineup. “It doesn’t just happen on its own. … They reach outside their circles of friends.”
Stacking the lineup
As High Plains continues to grow, it’s offering more daytime entertainment at lower ticket prices on Saturday. That includes a “Those Who Can’t” table read, cartoon and comedy, and a sort of improv brunch.
Also among those daytime shows is a live podcast taping with Jonah Keri, a local baseball writer, New York Times best selling author and host of his own, self-titled Nerdist podcast. It’s his first year performing at High Plains, but it won’t be his first time recording his show live.
“I’m a big comedy junky on a personal level. I love talking to comics. I think they have such a cool world view,” he said. “I find that having a format where I can talk to comedians about their lives and how they got to where they are is fascinating and open and honest and cool.”
His wife, Angéle Fauchier, came up with the premise for the High Plains podcast. She compiled a list of out-of-context quotes from Keri’s past guests, like Shaquille O’Neal, Keith Olbermann and Chris Hardwick, and guests Sean O’Connor and Ian Karmel will have to guess who said what.
“Even if you’re not a sporty person, if you’re just going to see High Plains, it’s just fun. It’ll end up being funny and loose and a good time,” Keri said. “Sarah Tiana, when I had her on the podcast, she talked about shooting T-shirts out of a cannon at Atlanta Braves games. That’s just funny.”
The lineup is delivering more well-known names like Keri’s — not that past headliners like Anthony Jeselnik and Reggie Watts weren’t big enough. In addition to pulling in more out-of-town names, our homegrown talent is gaining notoriety.
Uncalled Four, for one, has recently been in talks for its own TV show. The Most Offensive Comedy Game Show in America is hosted and produced by Denver comedy couple Jake Browne and Samantha Taylor, and is more or less a live, interactive game of Cards Against Humanity, only four comedians are filling in the blanks off the cuff. (For what it’s worth, Browne says Burris is a “two-time Uncalled Four winner of The Person Who Actually Has A Strong Moral Foundation award.)
And if you want to see who’s next in line, High Plains has a showcase for that: the Denver Up-And-Comers show will feature 11 comics who are new to Denver, new to comedy or making a comeback.
When, where, how and how much
Shows begin Thursday, which will be a short night — 7 to 10:30 p.m. — and the fun continues from 6 to bar close on Friday. The big day, Saturday, offers showcases from 1 p.m. until around midnight.
Weekend passes are sold out, but individual show tickets are available at highplainscomedyfestival.com. Prices range from $5 to $42.50. Most are $10 or $15.